When advertising rep Philip Cox arrived in Romania, the beer appalled him.
Fortunately, communism had just collapsed, so the young Brit was able to start his own beer company. Working with alcohol led him to the local wines, some of which he sold to German giant Reh Kendermann, for whom he later worked. In 1999, in partnership with his wife Elvira and friends, Gheorghe and Lia Lova and Maria and Ioan Georgiu, he bought a 600 ha vineyard. Feeling optimistic, the group acquired Cramele Recaș in 2001, a 4m-litre capacity former state winery in the Transylvania/Banat region. It was run down, but Cox believed strongly enough in Romanian wine to give it a go.
This year, Recaș will produce 30m litres. The grapes come from the 1,150 ha of vineyards sprawled outside the winery, plus the other 25 ha further north. In 2017, exports grew by 8m bottles, or 42 percent and turnover rose to €42m ($52.5m).
This isn’t a typical story from Romania, a country with the EU’s highest rate of relative poverty. And there are signs that not all is well in the region, such as the abandoned vineyards to be seen here and there. But Cox has never wavered in his belief in Romania’s wines — and he thinks that Recaș’ success shows the whole wine industry is at a tipping point.
A will-do company
The Recaș boardroom shelves are covered with wine, each bottle made for a specific market. “We have guys in the vineyards who have worked there for 40 years,” says Cox. But he doesn’t think customers want to know whose great-uncle made their wine. “The wine should speak for itself.”
His “I Am” brand “doesn’t sell because it’s Romanian but because it’s a pretty label that says it’s dry or sweet. "We have one for Germans that doesn’t really have a brand name, but the label tells you it’s good with fish.” And then there’s Britain’s top-selling Pinot Grigio, the Henkell group’s I Heart brand. Cox says he’s inspired by Australia’s John Casella, creator of the Yellow Tail brand; coincidentally, his chief winemaker, Hartley Smithers, also works for Casellas.
While Cox is passionate about Romania’s potential, he’s also realistic about the legacy of its communist past and post-communist “privatisation cock-up”. Romania’s vineyards aren’t producing enough, he says, so grapes are too expensive. “In 1990, Romania had 300,000 ha of vineyards. It’s down to 180,000 ha right now, officially, but we reckon that only about 70,000 to 80,000 ha are in the hands of professional wineries.”
The Romanians’ patriotic consumption of 27L per person creates another imbalance, because it means local companies can be profitable without having to raise quality. Four companies making wines for under €3.00 a bottle have 85 percent of the business, while the EU-subsidised wineries — as many as 100, with an estimated 30,000 ha of vineyards between them — all jostle to be in the top 15 percent.
Wineries seeking those subsidies haven’t been helped by inconsistent government funding rules. Still, Cox is enthusiastic about the potential for growth, saying Recaș sells about 9m bottles a year on the local market, and another 300,000 10L bag-in-boxes. Between 2005 and 2015, Recaș opened 130 franchised shops, which sell 7m litres of wine annually. Wine tourism also brings in 30,000 visitors a year.
Cox strides past the laboratory and down a steel staircase. At the bottom is a storage room with hundreds of different brands on its shelves. Cox says he makes wine to order and exports are booming. There’s been 120 percent growth in shipments to Germany, 60 percent to Holland and 20 percent to England. “I only started doing Germany because of the Brexit thing. Now they’re our favourite customers.”
Recaș will do anything; one wine has an ultraviolet label, another, a holographic heart, for the wedding market. There’s even church wine. “We’ve got the bishops sewn up,” says Cox, adding they’re tough to deal with. “They each want their own label — they’re worse than supermarket buyers.”
Ultimately, though, it’s all about the wine. “Romania can do Pinot Noir very well,” says Cox. “That’s hard to do for a decent price, so that’s a competitive advantage. Our Sauvignon Blanc is cheaper than New Zealand and better than Languedoc.” And, of course, there’s Pinot Grigio. Cox also has big ambitions for his premium wine business. “In 2016 we sold 800,000 bottles at over €7.00 — and some up to €30.00 on the shelf.” The only barrier to growth is lack of labour. “Our region here is in full employment and wages went up 20 percent last year.” Recaș is not far from Timișoara city, whose highways groan from all the long haul trucks carrying goods to the EU.
You can taste the growth in the air. But perhaps it’s easy to feel that, standing in Romania’s most successful winery. What’s the rest of the industry like?
In the region of Buziaş, the fading sun casts a golden glow over Crama Aramic, founded in 2009 and a beneficiary of EU funds. An extension is half built, hoses and equipment neatly coiled on the concrete.
“We did the first plantings in 2010,” says Cosmin Craciunescu, with the first real harvest in 2015. The wines are laid out in the new tasting room; the smoky-incense Pinot Noir and the Sauvignon Blanc 2016 show promise. Cosmin’s father, Adam, caught the wine bug in 2004 while visiting Plovdiv in Bulgaria on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, where he heard viticulturists speak. “When he bought this vineyard, people were sceptical,” says Cosmin. “But we could see that there were other vineyards in Romania that looked decent.”
Funding was no problem, thanks to an ambitious EU programme to replant old vineyard land. He thinks there have been people who have started wineries just for the subsidies, but his family are committed — Cosmin has even given up his day job as a dentist.
He’s not the only one who’s gone all in. Drăgăşani, sandwiched between the Danube and the southern Carpathians, takes its name from an ancient winemaking village. “Drăgăşani wines were served at royal dinners,” explains Cristiana Stoica, lawyer and owner of Avincis winery.
Stoica is so passionate about Romania’s potential that she and her husband have put their life savings into creating this hilltop winery. “We have lost our traditions of winemaking,” she says. “We’ve had to talk to people from the past, who could remember what was traditionally planted here.”
The property consists of a small winery and smart tasting area built into a hill, with luxury units on top. A short walk away is a white neo-Romanian villa, which once belonged to Stoica’s great-grandmother. Like most private property, it was seized by the communists, but Ms Stoica’s legal knowledge helped her win it back in 2007. The wines, poured by consulting winemaker Ghislain Moritz from Alsace and agronomist Stefano Saderi from Italy show great promise, especially the white Cramposie, which tastes like a weightier version of Grüner Veltliner, and the blend of the spicy local grape Negru de Drăgăşani with Merlot.
One challenge, says Stoica, is the lack of a national image because of wineries’ unwillingness to cooperate with each other, so she works at a regional level with like-minded producers to host journalists, create events and organise tastings. Her only regret is that she was too conservative when they started, and didn’t build a bigger tasting room. Now it’s a struggle to accommodate all the people who want to come.
One of the wineries that Stoica cooperates with is Prince Stirbey, which, at the turn of the 20th century, produced Romania’s most fashionable wines. Founded in 1873 and overlooking the Olt River, it was owned by the aristocratic Stirbey family, whose marble bath, chiselled with royal crests, now sits incongruously on the front lawn. But it, too, was seized by the communists — and its owners persecuted.
It has been back in the hands of Baroness Ileana Kripp-Costinescu and her husband Baron Jakob Kripp of Austria, also a lawyer and wine lover, since 1999. It produced its first wine in 2001. Everything is single vineyard, because the baron believes this is the best way to discover the local grape varieties. “If we travel to Piedmont, we don’t look for Merlot — we want Nebbiolo,” he says. “We have clay and the soil is deep and cool.”
The Fetească Regală, a grape from Transylvania, offers flavours of mandarin and pear, while the aromatic and elegant grape Novac is intriguing. When Kripp started “there was no market for these kinds of wine, especially at the price we needed, of about €17.00 to €18.00 on the shelf in Germany”. Thanks to the contemporary interest in local varieties and minimal intervention winemaking, however, the wines are now being exported to the UK, Germany and Belgium.
Horses and carts still mingle with cars on the road to Dealu Mare in the north. This region, in the hills of the sub-Carpathians between the Teleajen River and the Buzau River, enjoys limited rain and extended sunny periods, making it ideal for red wines. The Serve winery was founded here in 1994 by Count Guy Tyrel de Poix, a Frenchman who headed for Romania after reading about it in Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine. De Poix fell in love both with the land and with Mihaela Tyrel de Poix, and the couple launched the winery. The initials S.E.R.V.E. stand for “The Euro-Romanian Exceptional Wines Company”, which for many years was Romania’s only private wine company.
Serve’s range includes an elegant Chardonnay, excellent Pinot Noir and a charming Pinot Noir rosé. De Poix, who died in 2011, always said he couldn’t live in a country without rosé and was the first to make a Romanian version. Now Serve is the market leader for rosé.
Dealu Mare has seduced another foreigner as well, English flying winemaker Stephen Donnelly. “When I first came to Romania in 1995, it was like the Wild West. They had no hoses, no yeasts, no equipment,” he says. The land, he adds, is mostly “brilliant” though too fertile in parts, but with excellent drainage and limestone pockets. “The Dacians were vinifying in the area,” he says. “There is an archaeological site a stone’s throw from here where they found amphora.”
Donnelly says that two engineers founded that Budureasca as a hobby in 2006. Now it produces 2.5m litres of mostly red wine, including Pinot Noir and Fetească Negara. The local market takes 90 percent of the production, but exports are growing, including to China.
Not everything in Romania is bright with optimism. There is evidence of poverty everywhere and, if Cox is right, too little efficiency and too many new wineries. But it’s striking that the quality producers — dentist, lawyers, advertising rep — are following the same path as the lawyers and doctors who founded Australia’s now mighty industry. There’s a long way to go — but Romania’s on its way.